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Hands-On Humanitarianism, from one field to another

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Harriet Pillman is an architect by profession. Thanks to contacts she made at RedR's Hands-On Shelter Weekend, she was able to go to Myanmar with the NGO ReciproBoo, where she helped to train humanitarian staff and community representatives in emergency shelter construction.

I qualified as an architect a year ago. I work at a practice that primarily focuses on conservation, so I work mainly with Listed Buildings. I have been wanting to work in the humanitarian sector for a long time, but it was only once I’d completed my seven years of training that I finally had the time to dedicate to this.

When I was in the second year of my degree, I designed and built a nursery school in South Africa with a group of 25 of my fellow students. We spent seven weeks building the school in a township called Jouberton alongside ten local men and women. This was the first time I really felt that my architecture skills could be used beneficially.  

A seven-year search

I spent the next seven years researching opportunities, Googling events and lectures that could give me a way in - and that's when I found RedR the Hands-On Weekend. It seemed like a great opportunity to meet like-minded people, and I realised networking is often the best way to gain contacts in a new field and make the connections needed to open up opportunities.

One of the workshops we took part in during the weekend focused on building emergency shelter from bamboo. It was run by Shaun Halbert from ReciproBoo, an NGO that develops practical shelter solutions for disaster relief. It has developed an innovative model of emergency shelter which uses a reciprocal frame structure to form the roof of the shelters. As a self-supporting structure, a reciprocal frame has exceptional strength and efficiency, making it a better option than tents or basic traditional structures.

ReciproBoo aims to ensure disaster-prone communities are resilient by teaching them this practical, life-saving method of construction. Inspired by this vision, I was keen to use my skills to contribute to ReciproBoo’s work. After the workshop, I talked to Shaun about how I might get involved, and continued to pester him over the next six months! That’s how the opportunity to go and help train people in Myanmar came about.

Sharing skills with disaster-prone communities

Our first stop was Yangon, where we spent one day training local Red Cross volunteers (pictured) and a further day training staff from other local and international NGOs: 64 people in total. The ReciproBoo frames can be built out of steel or bamboo, but in Myanmar we were using bamboo as it is locally sourced, renewable and cheap. Only seven bamboo poles are required for the emergency shelter, meaning that it costs the family as little as $6.  

We then travelled to the Delta region, which is extremely vulnerable to flooding, to conduct the same training. The village of Pyin Ma Chaung is home to 640 households, 365 of which lie outside the dyke and are affected by flooding every year. When the floods are at their highest, they can reach 1.5 or even two metres. 

The villagers are forced to move out of their homes and if they are lucky stay with family elsewhere or in a local monastery. Sadly, for a lot of people this is not an option and so they build temporary shelters up in the dyke above the floods. However, in the majority of cases, the roof is not strong enough to withstand the heavy rains or winds and does not provide the necessary structural stability. The reciprocal frame solution was therefore highly relevant in this context. 

The people of Pyin Ma Chaung now intend to help families who lose their homes to build emergency shelters using the reciprocal frame. They are even thinking of building the community hall roof out of reciprocal frames, rather than traditional A-frame, so that everyone in the community can see the benefits. From this they can share their knowledge and pass on their skills to others.

My advice? Get out there and go for it!

I think any experience like that broadens your skill set. Working with people from a completely different culture and whose language I didn’t speak was a huge learning experience for me. I gained understanding of another culture, their customs and country. It was a fantastic experience. Even though the work I was carrying out in Myanmar doesn't directly relate to my everyday work in the UK, it certainly developed my people management skills - a big part of being an architect, where teamwork is vital. 

I hope to return to Myanmar to carry out the same training in Rakhine State, where the tidal surges are so huge during the monsoon season that whole villages are washed away and hundreds of lives are lost. 

To anyone who's considering getting into the humanitarian sector, I would say: Get out there, talk to as many people as possible, make contacts and if an opportunity arises, go for it! Don't worry if it's not exactly what you had in mind: if you find a way in, don't let it pass you by. Be flexible, don't limit yourself to a certain skill-set: there are many elements to humanitarian work that all interrelate and you can't work with one without the other. Often it can lead to something more incredible than you imagined - and probably much more hard work too!